Higher Learning Commission

2014 Collection of Papers

OpenBook: Data Democracy for Strategic Decision
Making and Cultural Change

Margaret A. Martyn, George Calisto, Brendan Aldrich, and Nancy Chavez

In its pursuit of a more data-driven culture, City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) embarked on a project that continues to evolve and have an impact on all who use it. The project centers on building a business intelligence (BI) tool—appropriately named “OpenBook”—because it holds the promise of democratizing data access to employees who need accurate, relevant, and timely information to make sound decisions. From its early beginnings, this project has been guided by the belief that easy access to data breeds a more data-driven culture, where users more “freely” pursue their own quantitative questions and investigations (Walintschek and DeChambeau 2011). As users participate in CCC’s evolving data-driven culture, the decision-making power of the data is continuously evaluated and improved.

Rationale for Building a Data Democracy

Data management systems within an organization can run a spectrum from “data dictatorship” to “data aristocracy” to“ data democracy” and “data anarchy”—the first being most restrictive and the last being the most open, with few controls. In a data dictatorship, data are tightly controlled at the top of the organization and released more broadly only as needed or required. In a data dictatorship, a small number of data specialists directly access, format, and interpret an organization’s data. This is especially true in education. A CfBT (Confederation for British Teachers) Education Trust study in 2010 listed attributes of a data dictatorship in education as including (a) a need to control, (b) a data manager who views herself or himself as the “data expert,” (c) a system offering most users only pre-digested data bytes, and (d) teachers who get only what data they are given (Kelly, Downey, and Rietdijk 2010).

Recently, traditional data systems and interfaces have become increasingly more intuitive, allowing users to generate and explore their own queries and investigations through data (Walintschek and DeChambeau 2011). As non-data specialists have become more interested, knowledgeable, and confident about accessing and using information, specialized data teams have become overwhelmed with data requests.

The resulting data bottleneck is now driving a significant shift in the way that organizations handle data. Recognizing the advantages of empowering their employees with more data, organizations are beginning to move away from the tightly controlled data dictatorships of the past and toward what could be called a “data democracy”—systems that directly and intuitively provide their employees with the accurate and relevant information they need.

Relative to typical data systems, a data democracy entails significant new questions around such topics as licensing, architecture, software selection, training, and tools. These questions are so significant that a survey conducted by the Oracle Applications Users Group in 2010 suggested that only 4 percent of companies may have deployed systems in which a majority of their employees have direct access to data (McKendrick 2010).

CCC addressed these questions in the creation of its OpenBook data platform. OpenBook utilizes fully interactive (non-static) reports, which allow employees to adjust a report as needed to answer the new questions that the report may not have originally answered. OpenBook’s dynamic data environments provide each person with data relevant to their responsibilities. OpenBook also provides an integrated data dictionary available within every report to facilitate a common understanding of the report attributes, along with just-in-time video training available from within the user interface.

Overview of OpenBook Implementation

The development of OpenBook was directed by a CCC project team. From September 2012 to September 2013, the project team focused on bringing administrative data from the PeopleSoft student information system into the data warehouse and making the information directly available to more than five thousand employees working with students across the seven CCC campuses. The project team consisted of three full-time staff: a project team leader from CCC’s Center for Operational Excellence (COE) and Reinvention, the executive director of Data Warehousing from CCC’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), and a senior engineer from the selected data warehouse vendor ZogoTech. This project was also supported by internal staff (e.g., institutional researchers, OIT programmers, faculty, and administrators) across the colleges.

Three factors supported the quick and successful deployment of the BI project at City Colleges of Chicago:

  1. Project Leadership Expertise. The executive director of Data Warehousing had the expertise to direct how CCC needed the system built. Further, the project team leader provided project management and possessed the skills to build the system for the entire college system and the individual user.
  2. Strong stakeholder base and communication strategy. The project built a base of four hundred internal stakeholders to provide ongoing project updates, collect input on the naming of the system (OpenBook), and identify individuals for the beta and soft launch periods.
  3. Engaged internal staff. The project leveraged the experience and expertise of CCC employees, who either worked with or needed data, which ensured that the project team designed a business intelligence system to support the various roles and responsibilities of everyone working within the system.

One of the implementation challenges was the deployment of the system with limited staff resources—for example, the team had to make many decisions and trade-offs on where to spend time to get the system ready for launch. In reality, as organizational needs continue to change, so will the required system improvements. Consequently, the team focused on identifying the most useful pieces of information to make available for its initial launch of OpenBook. Another challenge was designing a tool that allowed individuals with different technology comfort levels to engage the system in the ways they needed. However, it is understood that the design of explanatory materials and training modules will always be a constant work in progress. In addition, as the project team continues to build the internal capacity to manage the system and identify power users who would assist in the development of the system, this challenge can be overcome.

Two Perspectives on Using OpenBook: Research and Administration

The power user has played a significant role in the development of OpenBook. At CCC, the institutional researcher (IR) has always been in the position to fully test the capabilities and functions of any standard or specialized software application (The Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges, n.d.). As a power user of OpenBook, the IR has evaluated and provided feedback on how easily and reliably OpenBook retrieves both aggregate and identifiable data. The IR has had the opportunity to assess the tool’s ability to retrieve data via the use of simple logical reasoning and present it in the form of spreadsheets, pivot tables, and dashboards. Essentially, the IR has been the best position to judge the tool as either a standalone or as a tool among several others in an IR’s toolbox. As a power user, the IR has also been responsible for providing feedback and ensuring the continuous improvement of the tool. And, of the many users of OpenBook, the IR is best positioned to detect how well OpenBook has been evolving. Thus the power user of a product such as OpenBook is challenged to have patience in the face of a process that simply takes time.

Many will benefit as OpenBook evolves. Administrators will be able to use quantitative information to make decisions regarding faculty tenure, new program approvals, the “sunsetting” of old programs, and the allocation of resources to various student support services to retain and engage students. As a concrete example, there is the matter of how faculty members retain students in their classes and how many students succeed. Measuring student success is especially complex. If a measure of student success is earning a grade of A, B, or C, then what happens if a faculty member gives every student an A—regardless of whether a student has learned or not? A more effective process may be to compare student grades in a course and then compare grades in the following course in the sequence. OpenBook facilitates the tracking of student cohort performances from class to class.

The ability to track student progress cannot be overestimated. A recent article notes that pattern recognition and predictive analytics are not yet broadly used in educational settings, but their use could have a positive impact (Wagner and Ice 2012). Specifically, “they could assist with activities such as selecting courses or predicting when students might be at a point of academic risk. Educators are still getting their heads wrapped around the realities and implications for what it means to systematically track information” (p. 34).

Closing Thoughts

As a standalone BI tool, OpenBook will allow faculty, staff, department chairs, deans, vice presidents, and presidents to access data easily and create visual reports that will help to interpret the data. The inevitable increase of new users will ensure a continuing cycle of feedback, evaluation, and problem solving. Challenges, such as resource selection and allocation, will become lessons learned—resulting in a more focused and efficient implementation. And, as OpenBook permeates the CCC culture, the benefits of data democratization will more tangibly be reaped by a culture free to underpin its explorations with data.


Kelly, A., C. Downey, and W. Rietdijk. 2010. Data dictatorship and data democracy: Understanding professional attitudes to the use of pupil performance data in English secondary schools. Reading, Berkshire, UK: CfBT Education Trust. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/147597/4/SUMMARY_REPORT_DataDictatorship_web.pdf.

McKendrick, J. 2010. Analytics for all: Why data democracy makes business sense. Insurance Networking News, October 14. http://www.insurancenetworking.com/blogs/insurance_technology_data_management_analytics_Oracle_OAUG-26099-1.html.

The Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges. N.d. Institutional research & planning job descriptions. http://www.rpgroup.org/resources/job-descriptions.

Wagner, E., and P. Ice. 2012. Data changes everything: Delivering on the promise of learning analytics in higher education. EDUCAUSE Review 47 (4). https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM1243P.pdf.

Walintschek, S., and J. DeChambeau. 2011. Adaptive intelligence: The evolution of business intelligence. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: T4G│Research. http://www.t4g.com/cmspages/getfile.aspx?guid=db319193-2e8a-4192-83d0-3009df02c99c.



About the Authors

Margaret A. Martyn is Vice President of Academic Affairs and George Calisto is Assistant Director of Research and Planning at City Colleges of Chicago-Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois; Brendan Aldrich is Executive Director, Data Warehousing Services, and Nancy Chavez is Project Team Leader at City Colleges of Chicago District Office in Chicago, Illinois.

Copyright © 2019 - Higher Learning Commission

NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

Higher Learning Commission • 230 South LaSalle Street, Suite 7-500 • Chicago, IL 60604 • info@hlcommission.org • 800.621.7440

Home | About HLC | Contact Us | Privacy Policy

YouTube graybkgrdLinkedIn graybkgdTwitter graybkgd